Gordon Adams

Aim High

Guess who's in Romney's 47 percent?


We’re not supposed to like that 47 percent — the Americans who are said to expect the government to provide them with food, housing, and other comforts of life. But then, what do we do about the rich who depend on the government for the same things?

The argument, kicked up by the thoughtless remarks made by Gov. Mitt Romney to wealthy funders in Florida last May, left me thinking about how strange and misleading it is to think of the government as something alien to the American people and, particularly, to American industry.

In my neck of the woods, the most interesting part of that industry is aerospace. It wouldn’t exist without the government. Not the way you think, though — not through the purchase of military equipment. The aviation industry got its start more than a century ago, but, even with World War I aircraft procurement, the industry was dying in the 1920s.

So the industry got busy, creating the government they needed to survive. How they did it is an interesting and revealing tale about who really depends on the government. Big airplanes were too expensive to build, and nobody was clamoring to fly in them. But putting mail in them was another matter. So the first big government subsidy to the aviation industry was the Postal Service (not the military). And the subsidy was for flying mail, calculated not by the number of letters and packages carried, but by the volume of space the aircraft manufacturers made available to fly the mail, regardless of who used that space.

But flying was still an expensive and risky proposition. The aircraft manufacturers and the investors who wanted to create airlines needed some reassurance that their investments would not be lost if planes got lost or crashed. And the insurance industry wanted to be certain they would not lose money if that happened.

So what did they need from the government? Weather information, airfields, beacons, lights, communications capabilities, marked air routes, the things they would all use. And government regulation, yes, regulation, to ensure that the aircraft were airworthy, a promise nobody would accept from the manufacturers. So the government they needed was created — the weather service, the forerunner of the Civil Aeronautics Board, among others.

Once flying was deemed safe and predictable and the planes were big enough, capital would move in and make money. But the postal subsidy was essential. It long preceded big wartime orders for the planes, a subsidy which has had the industry humming now for decades.

The morality tale here is that big corporations, the ones sitting around in Boca Raton laughing about Mitt Romney’s dilemma about who to give his inheritance to, have built the government that takes care of their food and housing, and have done so for decades. The salaries of the major defense contractors are paid by the American taxpayers, and they do mighty well.

This tale is threaded through the entire architecture of American corporate life. How strange that the government-support argument only seems to focus on the poor, the elderly, and working people who are paid so little they fall below the requirements of the tax code.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security.

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